The Baltimore Ravens have a critical offensive flaw. They run an offense based on speed, and they have one source of speed in the backfield: Lamar Jackson. Latavius Murray and Devonta Freeman are perhaps the two worst fits in this offense from a speed perspective.
Murray is deployed as a traditional power back. There is a place in the offense for that, but Freeman causes many problems. When the Ravens run an inverted veer play (an option run when Jackson has the opportunity to run through the hashes while the running back would run off the tackle), Freeman does not have the burst to consistently gain yards. He is shifty enough to occasionally make the first man miss, but he cannot generate chunk plays like the Ravens desperately need.
Insert Devin Duvernay
Unlike Murray and Freeman, Devin Duvernay is a legitimate burner. He has minimal high-level experience as a pure runner, but he has been a dynamic threat on end arounds and punt returns this season.
He leads the NFL in both punt return yards and yards per punt return. This shiftiness on returns could translate to the backfield, particularly on the edge. Baltimore already uses Duvernay for occasional trick plays; he has eight carries for 111 yards in his two seasons with the Ravens.
Duvernay was a track star at Texas, and he runs a sub-4.40 40-yard dash. This explosiveness could be the difference between a third-and-short and a first down. The Ravens are 25th in third-down conversion rate, and that little bit of extra explosiveness would both make third downs easier but also convert more series on earlier downs. While the Ravens are first in fourth-down conversion rate, it would be preferable for that to be a last-ditch formula rather than a necessity.
While he is currently injured, Deebo Samuel is the most recent wide receiver to have a mini transition to the running back position. Through eight games in 2021, Samuel had 81 targets and just six rushes. It was much of the same in his first two seasons with the San Francisco 49ers.
Samuel had 22 carries in 22 games, racking up 185 yards and three rushing touchdowns. However, in the last three games, the 49ers have made a conscious effort to run the ball with Samuel. These are not gadget plays; Samuel is lining up at running back and carrying the ball just as Elijah Mitchell does.
This has been ridiculously productive for Samuel and the 49ers. He has 19 carries for 181 yards and four touchdowns. It is low-volume, only six carries per game, but it is efficient. Samuel is averaging 9.53 yards per carry, and he is not invisible in the receiving game.
His production is down from the first eight weeks, but if he kept up his pace over 16 games, he would total 1,600 scrimmage yards and 26 total touchdowns. These are lofty expectations, but this is an example of putting a receiver in the backfield and watching what happens.
Cordarrelle Patterson has been a revelation for the Atlanta Falcons in 2021. The four-time All-Pro return specialist has posted 911 scrimmage yards and nine scrimmage touchdowns in 10 games. He is on pace for 650 rushing yards and 800 receiving yards on the season with 14 total touchdowns.
Patterson’s workload is split between 9.3 carries per game and 5.2 targets per game. He has at least six carries in nine of ten games played, going over 14 in three games. The rushing efficiency has been a mixed bag as Patterson has three games below 3.00 yards per carry and three games above 6.20 yards per carry, but the results speak for themselves.
Patterson was drafted as a wide receiver and return specialist in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft. He has lived up to (and exceeded) any expectation as a returner, but he was underwhelming as a receiver.
After five seasons in the NFL, Patterson went to New England, won a Super Bowl, and made a soft transition to running back. He had 42 carries for 228 yards and a touchdown. It was not high volume, but it was effective. He carried the rock 64 times for a disastrous 2020 Chicago Bears offense, but in Atlanta, he has been a full-fledged running back. In his new role, Patterson is 17th in the NFL in scrimmage yards and tied for 10th in touchdowns.
Ravens fans should be somewhat familiar with Ty Montgomery who played six games for the Ravens in 2018. Like Samuel and Patterson, Montgomery was drafted to be a wide receiver, but he was forced into action at running back. (Samuel is more a luxury as a runner while Patterson’s initial move was prompted by his poor results at receiver).
After a 2015 season spent as a rarely used receiver, the Packers were forced to use Montgomery as a runner. Over the last 10 games of 2016, Montgomery averaged 7.2 carries per game and 6.3 yards per carry. Over the course of a full 16-game season, he would have racked up 722 yards and five rushing touchdowns.
In 2017, Montgomery averaged 8.9 carries per game in the eight games he played. Since then, he has been more of an in-between player splitting time at running back and receiver, but he does average 4.6 yards per carry in his career.
Duvernay is a better athlete than Montgomery, but Montgomery would be the closest contemporary based on expectations associated with draft position.
Why Does It Work?
There are two schools of thought here. First, receivers are generally faster and more agile than running backs. There are a bevy of pros and cons here, but the idea is to put your best playmakers in space.
Duvernay is far from a focal point of the Baltimore offense, but he moves the chains when given the ball. This ideology means that receivers should run outside the tackles more than in between the tackles. These runs are more volatile than interior runs, but the receiver would theoretically be more likely to break that run for a large gain than a traditional running back.
The second thought is a question of defensive personnel. When Patterson, Samuel, or Montgomery are in the backfield, who does the defense put on the field to oppose them?
If the defense chooses a linebacker or heavier safety, then the former receiver has a huge advantage. If the defense chooses a cornerback or a lighter safety, the run play gets the advantage. Football is a game of mismatches and having a threat such as a receiver playing running back is dangerous.
Wouldn’t The Inverse Be True?
Deploying the likes of Christian McCaffrey or Alvin Kamara as a true receiver can work, but the issue arises with the relative ability of the players. McCaffrey and Kamara are excellent route runners for running backs, but when compared to receivers, their abilities stand out less.
As a whole, wide receivers (or tight ends) are likely to be more successful as runners than running backs are to be successful as a pass-catcher. Simply, a running back in a pass pattern is less effective than a wide receiver or tight end while a receiver (or tight end) is similarly effective as a runner to a traditional running back.
PFF has an excellent article breaking down hybrid receivers. It is behind their paywall, however.
This does not mean that Duvernay must be a bell-cow back for the Ravens, but they should mix in his abilities especially if John Harbaugh and Greg Roman do not trust Ty’Son Williams. Duvernay could add a home-run element to the offense in the same vein that J.K. Dobbins did in 2020 when Gus Edwards and Mark Ingram were used as the bruiser types. Duvernay is not as good of a runner as Dobbins, Edwards, Ingram, or any other running back discussed here, but his skill set is lacking in the current Ravens room. Even five carries a game would push the Ravens closer to their dominant 2019 and 2020 rushing attacks.
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